Sunday 23 August 2015

Domestic strife at the Frontline

A cup of coffee helps to put things right in the turbulent household of Robert and Christine Storch (aka Richard and Pauline Strauss – played above in the recent Garsington production of Strauss's Intermezzo by Mark Stone and Mary Dunleavy, photo by Mike Hoban). It takes mushrooms sprinkled with rat poison, and then a good old-fashioned strangling to solve the problem among the Izmailovs of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk when bored and abused housewife Katerina wants a real man (my thanks to Eduard Straub for allowing me to reproduce two images from the ever-fascinating Dmitri Tcherniakov's production as first staged for Deutsche Oper am Rhein, heading for ENO on 26 September).

We've had several summer months to put between the Strauss comedy and Shostakovich's compassionate shocker - to which I'm devoting five weeks from Monday 28 September  - in my Opera in Depth course at the Frontline Club (update: Mark Wiggleworth, with whom I recently had a true conversation for an Arts Desk Q&A, has agreed to come and talk on both Lady Macbeth and Verdi's The Force of Destiny on 2 November).

Back in mid-July we wound up in double-quick time with the happy ending of Strauss’s autobiographical marriage opera, and after doubts seeped in with Dunleavy’s less than sympathetic Christine at Garsington, and for that matter with the only half-realised production from Bruno Ravella, Felicity Lott and John Cox in the Glyndebourne production of the 1980s – the only one, I think, on DVD – won even hardened sceptics round.

It was Elisabeth Söderström who sang the first Christine at Glyndebourne, and a half-good Chandos recording exists to testify to her own doughtier charms. Flott simply owned the role, as they say: she’d figure as a great comedienne if Strauss’s excellent libretto were merely read out. With both physical glamour – which presumably the real Pauline didn’t possess – and nervous perplexity and perversity – which clearly she did - she suspends all disbelief.

Even so questions need to be asked about one crucial issue: why, when Strauss put in nearly all his real wife’s bon mots and her less attractive qualities to boot, didn’t he mention that the wife had been a superb prima donna who gave up her singing career to look after husband and son? Clearly the flighty temperament was always there, but wouldn’t it have been exacerbated by dissatisfaction that she had sacrificed her career. Christine in Intermezzo is merely a spoilt housewife with charm, if you're lucky with the performer, and that’s unfair to the autobiographical roots.

The other question that bugs me is where Christine’s presumably naïve flirtation with the young Baron Lummer – a comic take on the Marschallin-Octavian relationship deliberately evoked in fleeting moments – had its roots in real life. Everyone who loves Strauss knows the anecdote of the mistaken telegram which nearly led to divorce on grounds of infidelity. But I, for one, would like to know about the Baron Lummer saga. The point here, though, is that it mostly shows the heroine in her most attractive and even generous lights.

We will probably never know. All I can say is that with the very first class I was back in love with the score and (most of) the situations. It was also a pleasure to get to know the splendid vocabulary of Strauss's original German libretto (both the Glyndebourne and Garsington productions were sung in Andrew Porter's fine English translation - right under the circumstances, I think). That was thanks to other supreme interpreters – Lucia Popp and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on the Sawallisch recording, more recently the wonderfully characterful and humorous Simone Schneider on a new CD set taken from a semi-staged Munich performance.

And Jeffrey Tate’s Rotterdam Philharmonic recording of the Four Interludes embraces a desert island track of mine in his very leisurely but glowing account of the “Reverie by the Fireside” – perhaps Strauss’s greatest slow movement.

Four of next season’s operatic choices for the course leaped out when English National Opera announced Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk as its opening production (second image of original Deutsche Oper am Rhein production above), Verdi’s La forza del destino to follow  and Tristan und Isolde as its big show of next summer, while the Royal Opera’s Boris Godunov, directed by Richard Jones and conducted by Antonio Pappano, ought to be among their best successes. I knew I couldn’t justify a whole half-term on Enescu’s Oedipe or Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest, so why not spend three Mondays on the tragedy and two on the groundbreaking operatic comedy? Mark Wigglesworth has promised to come and talk about the first two new productions he'll be conducting in his first season as ENO's Music Director, and I hope Richard will return for Boris. Join us at the wonderful Frontline from 28 September - Mondays 2-4pm; contact me for details on Oh, and yes, I admit it, this is a 'shop-window' entry.

Tuesday 18 August 2015

Tonnara di Scopello

'When I first came to Scopello I thought only that it was the most beautiful place I had ever seen,' wrote Gavin 'Ring of Bright Water' Maxwell in the first chapter of The Ten Pains of Death. When we first came there in June, I knew nothing of his time at the tuna fishery headquarters just below the settlement of Scopello di Sopra, Upper Scopello, in the north-west of Sicily. What drew us were friend Cally's lyrical paeans to the Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro, just under two kilometres from Scopello along a dead-end read and a natural paradise with seven kilometres of coastline undeveloped save for a line of pylons and several simple settlements (plus a good deal of land behind it). Of which more anon, though I want to declare, and show, immediately that from the upper coast path, that certainly is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen (but there are so many!)

In the long term, the knowledge of Maxwell's time in Sicily during the late 1950s triggered off a fascination with a notoriously difficult and complex individual, one certainly worth reading about in Douglas Botting's biography, with its prose as clear and eloquent as Maxwell's own but also an excessive coyness about its subject's homosexuality (time for a new study). Now is not the place to write about it, except to note that one of this infuriating but - if only at the end of his life as recounted in the biography - rather lovable man's many dishonesties was not to so much as mention his key to the wonderful series of locals' narratives of which The Ten Pains of Death consists.

You'd think from it that Maxwell was a fluent Italian speaker; he wasn't, and even if he had been, he wouldn't have penetrated the Sicilian dialect. His lifeline was a young barber's apprentice referred to in Botting's biography only as 'Giuseppe M' - why? For reasons of political safety? - 'who with Gavin's support and encouragement was to rise to become a radical political leader in...Palermo'. When this brilliant supporter - and lover, perhaps? - needed Maxwell's help the most in later years, taking the brunt of the offence they had caused the powers backing the Mafia in their first book together, the writer - beset, it's true, with more than his usual tranch of self-made troubles - cut him off.

What needs to be asserted, then, is that 'Giuseppe M' wrote most of the book, or rather that it is his interviews which were translated into English, and yet he gets not a mention; the dedication comes 'with profound affection and sympathy to the common people of Western Sicily, who know the ten pains of death'. It is their chronicle of suffering and courage, a common portrait in which the church and state come off very poorly indeed (in what I presume was Maxwell's ordering, the immediate contrasts between the prostitute and the nun, interviewed no doubt by Giuseppe, leave one in no doubt which of the two is more honest).

No doubt Maxwell's sympathy with the people was genuine, and his book - along with its predecessor, God Protect Me from My Friends about the bandit Salvatore Giuliano, which I have here to read next - gave a richer and more frank portrait of Sicilian peasant life than any other.

How things have changed since then, first with the economic boom of mainland Italy finally reaching southwards in the 1970s and '80s, then with European Commission funding transforming towns and villages, and the fear of the Mafia finally lessened (though of course that spider is far from extinct). Scopello is a case in point (above: a table in the main square. The main Bar Pasticceria, which bakes its cakes above the shop, is so perfect that one wonders how the sad bar opposite ever does any business). When Maxwell visited it Scopello di Sopra was semi-deserted:

Until a very few years ago there were some three or four hundred people living...[there], but because they nearly all had relations in the United States, or Canada, or Brazil, or Australia - (and, if the truth be told, because many of them had bettered their lots by smuggling contraband into Scopello tonnara) - the greater part of them decided to escape from the squalor of life in Sicily and have emigrated. Now there are only some 50 people left, and they too dream for most of the time of escape [later Maxwell explains that most houses are deserted because the emigrants never sold them, hoping to come back one day - which, it seems, many did].

There is a little piazza of crazily uneven paving-stones and loose boulders, with an unadorned stone fountain at its centre [the fountain, against a wall, was being renovated and under wraps when we visited]; above, the bare stone mountains climb steeply into the sky [night shot from the village follows]

and below, the land tilts abruptly seaward. Already, when one leaves the last of the scarecrow houses and begins twisting one's ankles among the big loose stones of the track, one is on a gradient of one in four; looking back, one is aware of having skirted a cliff upon the very lip of which Scopello di Sopra is built (below, the crag above the Tonnara boathouse).

And immediately one is looking down on the sea a mile below [sic: surely much less than a mile - that would be Ravello to sea level on the Amalfi coast, and that takes hours to reach from the coast], a sea of purple and blue and peacock green, with a jagged cliff coastline and great rock towers or faraglioni thrusting up out of the water as pinnacle islands, pale green with the growth of cactus at their heads.

Now there's a ticket office in the daylight hours at the top of the track leading down to the tonnara. I couldn't work out from my ticket whether it's privately or state owned, but you can stay in the palazzo where the owners lived. The tonnara, used by the Arabs thousands of years earlier, ceased functioning in the 1980s, and when Maxwell stayed here, the season was the worst for many years, forcing him to change the theme of his book. I'd love to return and stay right on the sea in May or October, but even on a mid-June weekday the place was very busy with bathers and swimmers.

I still loved it, and the bathing in the brilliant blue and emerald water was a delight, because you just lower yourself in from the harbour and there's no need to wade out for further depth. J didn't want to with so many folk about, but snoozed pleasantly in a deckchair under the solitary tree with one of the many cats for company.

Later we both swam at another beach along the coast. It was the end of the day so the rather hilarious Italian pop blaring from the beach hut soon left us in peace.

Our accommodation started badly: the warmly-recommended La Tranchina was full, and I'd found a small pensione in the village. It would have been fine, if a tad cramped, had the air conditioning worked. But it was broken and who knew, said the slightly melancholy but pleasant owner, when the engineers would come from Palermo. Since we'd had a sleepless (until 4am) night sweating with the small window shut because, when opened, the noise of other air conditioners was even worse, we moved headquarters to the simple and spacious hotel round the corner, the Torre Bennistra, one of two with magnificent views along the coastline. The other, La Tavernetta, had a charming hostess and our favourite restaurant, looking both ways, not least towards the celebrated bakery where we bought our rich lunches for walks in the Zingaro, Pane Cunzatu.

Its neon sign below the crescent moon is rather flash for Scopello, which is mostly rather quiet and fortunately unexpandable (I hope and pray, but the geology surely wouldn't permit growth). Though things were livening up, and the cafes filling with Italian men in Godfather-style black suits,  for two weddings on the afternoon of our departure.

We managed two big-ish walks, hikes, call them what you will, in the Zingaro. On a morning when the few spots of rain and grey skies, seen here from the hotel room balcony (so yes, we finally got a sea view),

quickly cleared, we made our way to the park entrance. The history is an unusually heartening one for Sicily, especially in the 1980s when I first visited on an Interrailing trip - east coast, Lipari and Stromboli - and found everyone so dour compared to the mainland Italians. A coast road was proposed from Scopello to the bigger resort of San Vito lo Capo on the northernmost tip of the peninsula. Six thousand environmentalists showed up to protest in May 1980 and the result was Sicily's first national park, opened the following year.

The lower path, even in mid-June, was as busy as the standard Cinque Terre route. Compared to the upper route, its sea views were modest, but looking upwards past the small palms to the heights gave it a different grandeur.

It was a fiercely windy day, so much so that I didn't notice the sun getting at parts which I hadn't suncreamed up properly (result: burnt upper arms and legs). So the sea off the many idyllic little beaches which should provide stopovers was too rough to swim in. I loved the dramatic (and deserted) Cala Marinella where we had our Pane Cunzatu and fruit, though.

Limited geological knowledge gives me only very basic information about the folds and striations which make yet another case of nature outstripping art: the fundamental rock formations of the Zingaro are dolomitic calcareous of 'mesozoic limestone'.

Several lizards with green backs, fearless and obviously on the hunt for tourists' breadcrumbs, added to the wonder of the composition:

After lunch, J made his way back along the lower path and I climbed towards a collection of refuges in a nicely greened zone called Sughero. The ascent was gentle, opening out on to highlands with outcrops of calcereous rock contrasting with what I assume was reddish sandstone.

The vegetation was sparse, and tantalising route markers illustrating a wide variety of orchids suggested it would be good to come a month earlier, but still I found quite a range of plants I could identify and many I couldn't. On the rocks, spotted or clustered with orange lichen, were a type of sempervivum

and some of the lichen was plant-like in itself.

Cistus still flowered in between the sporadic holm oaks

and once descending past the outcrop of the Pizzo del Corvo at about 400m

those strikingly blue eryngiums I've also seen on the dunes of north Norfolk began to appear.

To complement the colour, it was here and only here on two occasions that I came across a number of exquisite small blue butterflies. You only see the eyes, not the colour, when they're at rest on plants:

I think this is angelica flowering with a view up a valley which would make a good start to a different circular walk on a future visit

Now the views back towards the Scopello peninsula open up

and you pass a farm with beehives

before the long descent back to the visitors' centre, with farmland the other side of the boundary fence beyond the park (which of course had also been cultivated as far as it could be before it became a reserve).

Lower down there's Euphorbia arborescens, which is supposed to have shed its last red colours in April, but here they still were.

and the long thryrsi of agaves formed the occasional strong foreground to the coastal scenery.

The walk along the tarmac-ed road is no great hardship, since some of the villas are nicely planted with the oleanders you see everywhere in Palermo

and wilder nature still makes itself felt.

So to the delicious evenings of showering and supping, with the lights changing from pink on the mountains over the bay

to a deeper sunset looking towards Monte Passo del Lupo in the Zingaro heading towards San Vito lo Capo.

Romantic, yes, very; and this wasn't a bad choice for an umpteenth honeymoon, a very specific one just after the wedding on 15 June. I know now that Sicily is a project to explore for the rest of my life. I'd already caught the bug on our last visit, after many years away; now it's truly biting. But then there's Iceland, and India, and...

Friday 7 August 2015

Ingrid as Fury

Intelligence about an extraordinarily underrated film starring one great Swedish lady came to me from another, Sophie Sarin, who,  I hope she won't mind my saying, is something of a cross between Ingrid Bergman and Katherine Hepburn. At any rate I can imagine her taking the place of La Bergman's outrageously attired character on her balcony, sipping Djenne Djenno cocktails and occasionally stroking her pet leopard (they keep saying 'panther' in the movie) as she watches the snare closing around her intended victims. Sophie is, of course, the biggest help Djenne has ever had in terms of protecting its valuable legacy (see her latest blog entry), the opposite of Bergman's dark angel of destruction winging down on the people of fictional middle-European Guellen.

The film in question is The Visit, released in 1964 and directed by Bernhard Wicki. A continental friend was very surprised I didn't know the original play on which it's based, Der Besuch der Alten Dame (The Visit of the Old Woman) by Swiss author Friedrich Dürrenmatt - both title and playwright only names to me, since I'd heard of von Einem's opera (but again, neither heard nor seen it). It was a game role for Ingrid Bergman to assume, since she was not quite 50 at the time - she would have been 100 at the end of the month, so retrospectives are in order - and probably not ready for the label 'old'. Though in fact Wicki allows for Bergman's undimmed glamour in not exactly following Dürrenmatt's description of a 63-year old redhead who's 'a society lady with a rare grace, in spite of all the grotesquerie' and who turns out to be many parts metal following a plane crash in Afghanistan.

Wicked, though, she seems at first, until we get a greater tilting towards sympathy in the reasoning of this tycoon's widow for offering a failing town a million dollars in exchange for the death of the man who ruined her life. We soon learn that the natural corollary of the poster's subtitle 'Hell hath no fury...' is much more than just a woman scorned.

I corrected my ignorance of the play by buying a copy of the translation by Patrick Bowles after having seen the film, in which both Bergman and that ever-surprisingly good actor Anthony Quinn as the 'victim' of her hunt excel. The play does indeed read more as comedy than tragedy - ripe for the Richard Jones or Rupert Goold treatment - but I think I like the extra human dimensions Clara (or Carla, as she's called in the film) Zachanassian takes on in Ben Barzman's screenplay. Without the play's 'conspicuous consumption of husbands' and its false witnesses whom she's tracked down, had blinded and castrated and drawn into her circle of lackeys as Koby and Loby, she seems less absurd, and you have to keep pinching yourself to remember what a terrible vengefulness she intends to extract. The endings of film and play are outwardly different and yet - I can't say more without needing a spoiler notice - the film does not, I think, betray the essence of the situation.

So why was it not a hit? Too harsh, too unsoftened even in its ending to succeed with the public? Did they hate the idea of lovely Ingrid as, in the words of the play's Schoolmaster, not so much a Fury as a Fate, a Clotho 'spinning destiny's webs herself'? At any rate the characterisation, which can switch from deadly hate in the face to charming smiles in a second, is a long way from the usual image of Ingrid Bergman, who does indeed seem to have been the nicest person anyone ever met, albeit with a 'scandalous love life'. She knew the names of everyone on set and always arrived on time, I learn from an amusing 'Bergman vs Bergman' slot, jokily comparing actress and director, in the latest issue of the always beautifully produced Swedish Film which has a lovely photo of young, butter-wouldn't-melt Ingrid on the cover.

There's also an excellent article by Stig Björkman, whose new documentary Ingrid Bergman - In Her Own Words was shown at Cannes this year but has, as far as I know, yet to reach these shores. Disappointingly he doesn't choose The Visit on his shortlist of Bergman's best films, which features three I have to see, The Count of the Old Town (1935), Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1941) and a Rossellini which has somehow escaped me, Europa '51, alongside two firm favourites, Bergman's Autumn Sonata and Hitchcock's Notorious, which has just been made into an opera in which Nina Stemme is to star in Gothenburg.

Furious women and a destructive outsider, if I might make a transition which has a strange hold on my imagination, also figure in an absolute and ever-timely classic of the theatre, Euripides' Bakkhai. Ben Whishaw is a predictably spellbinding Dionysos in James Macdonald ingeniously tradition-conscious production at the Almeida, and the Bacchic choruses are both elaborately set to a cappella music by Orlando Gough as well as stunningly well executed by a group of ten singing actresses (though there are some unmusical theatregoers who just don't get it). Enough; I've written my paean already over on The Arts Desk.

This is just to acknowledge the arrival of Anne Carson's often faithful translation - so good it's made me get my old Greek text off the shelf - as published by Oberon Classics. It's the best homage to Greek tragedy, I reckon, since Tony Harrison's magnificent poetic equivalent for Peter Hall's Oresteia. Hall's Bacchae, by the way, was very good, but the Almeida's Bakkhai is superlative. Can't wait for the whole-day reading of The Iliad next Friday, and Goold's Medea with his wife Kate Fleetwood, an extraordinary Lady in his Macbeth, should be quite something too.

One more fury: myself. I realised in a shrinksession that my anger in the public sphere is spilling over into the private, not the other way around, at least consciously. Every day this government brings in new bills, tries to reverse old ones, in a flaming trail of destruction and dismantling. That includes seemingly trivial things like relaxing aspects of the foxhunting ban and bringing back bee-killing neonicotinoids which we, along with much of the rest of Europe, had already banned; but it also slips them in between major horrors like the so-far-thwarted attempt to make the UK withdraw from the European Bill of Human Rights and the atrocious stand on the endlessly suffering refugees trying to get in to Britain from Calais, where the French, no better, have been treating them worse than animals. Bravo, David Cameron, for the accolade from Forza Italia; you must be very proud.

This country must be so soul-bankrupt if we can't put ourselves in the position of people who've lost everything but now suffer what one of them said on the radio recently was worse than anything he'd ever experienced (that would, admittedly, have to be someone who hadn't been tortured). And you wonder why Jeremy Corbyn is beginning to seem like the only human alternative* (heaven spare us Yvette Cooper et al). Worthy folk like Polly Toynbee and Alan Johnson are constantly telling us that choosing Corbyn as new leader makes Labour unelectable, but in five years' time, if this extreme right-wing behaviour goes on, who knows? What's to lose, anyway? And here's someone who hasn't just come out of the blue as a charismatic contender, rather a politician who always was charismatic but genuinely didn't seek the limelight, was/is palpably sincere and honest - and no, Guardian scaremongers, not extreme. So yes, Mr. Corbyn, I'll take a chance and yes, goddaughter Rosie, I'll join you on the next demo. Rant over - for now.

*10/8 - subject to thorough examination of his stance towards Russia. I can accept that he finds things to criticise about America's and NATO's response to Ukraine, but the warning sign is equating their behaviour to Russia's, and if he gives the simple answer 'yes' to 'did you and do you still support Putin's annexation of Crimea?' then sorry, bye bye. But let's be careful always to get the words from the man himself.

**18/8 - regular appearances on Russia Today, that organ of misinformation and propaganda, as well as the constant allying with dictators and terrorists, are enough to turn me off. So I retreat with my tail between my legs and try and decide which of the others is the best of three not very goods. Not that my ballot paper has arrived yet.5/4/18 - which it never did, and I was told to ring three numbers. So I jumped ship and paid my dues to the Lib Dems, though that's not paid off. And I still remain devoted to our superb Labour MP for Hammersmith, Andy Slaughter.